Review: Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck

Review: Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel BeckSmall Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, paranormal romance, urban fantasy
Series: Witchlore #1
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of THE EX HEX and PAYBACK'S A WITCH, a fun, witchy rom-com in which a bookstore owner who is fighting to revitalize a small midwestern town clashes with her rival, the mayor, and uncovers not only a clandestine group that wields a dark magic to control the idyllic river hamlet, but hidden powers she never knew she possessed.

Witches aren't real. Right?

No one has civic pride quite like Emerson Wilde. As a local indie bookstore owner and youngest-ever Chamber of Commerce president, she’d do anything for her hometown of St. Cyprian, Missouri. After all, Midwest is best! She may be descended from a witch who was hanged in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials, but there’s no sorcery in doing your best for the town you love.Or is there?
As she preps Main Street for an annual festival, Emerson notices strange things happening around St. Cyprian. Strange things that culminate in a showdown with her lifelong arch-rival, Mayor Skip Simon. He seems to have sent impossible, paranormal creatures after her. Creatures that Emerson dispatches with ease, though she has no idea how she’s done it. Is Skip Simon…a witch? Is Emerson?
It turns out witches are real, and Emerson is one of them. She failed a coming-of-age test at age eighteen—the only test she’s ever failed!—and now, as an adult, her powers have come roaring back.
But she has little time to explore those powers, or her blossoming relationship with her childhood friend, cranky-yet-gorgeous local farmer Jacob North: an ancient evil has awakened in St. Cyprian, and it’s up to Emerson and her friends—maybe even Emerson herself—to save everything she loves.

My Review:

Once upon a time (mostly in the 1980s and 1990s) there were a whole lot of books telling stories about people (usually young women) who discovered that the mundane world all around them hid secret places and even more secretive people filled with magic – and danger. And that the protagonist of those stories either belonged in those magical places or discovered them or had to save them.

Or all of the above.

Emerson Wilde used to read all of those books, tucked inside the safe and comforting shelves of her beloved grandmother’s bookstore, Confluence Books. But her grandmother has passed, and left the store, her quirky Victorian house, and her legacy to Emerson.

Even if Emerson doesn’t remember the full extent of that legacy or her family’s place in St. Cyprian Missouri, a beautiful little town that sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Emerson thinks of St. Cyprian as a magical little town, one she’s proud to be a part of as a small business owner and president of its Chamber of Commerce. She doesn’t know the half of it.

But she’s about to find out.

Escape Rating B: Just like Emerson, I read all those books too, which meant that I sorta/kinda knew how this one was going to go. If you took a selection of those books and threw them in a blender with A Marvelous Light by Freya Marske, Witch Please by Ann Aguirre, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson and just a bit of Manipulative Dumbledore-style Harry Potter fanfiction you’d get something a lot like Small Town, Big Magic.

Not that that’s a bad thing, as each of those antecedents has plenty to recommend it. And if you like any of them you’ll probably like at least some parts of this first book in the Witchlore series.

But as much as I loved the premise – or most of the premises – that make up this story, there were a few things that drove me utterly bananas.

Many of those original urban fantasy-type stories focus on a relatively young protagonist who has their world view overturned when they learn that magic is real, all around them, and that they have at least some of it.

Emerson’s “unbusheling” as it’s called in A Marvelous Light isn’t like that at all. Because she did know about magic until she was 18 – and that’s where the Harry Potter fanfiction reference comes in. Emerson’s memory of magic was wiped because she failed a test of power – and that whole scenario is suspicious in a way that does not get resolved at the end of this first book in the series.

Second, she is an adult when her memories come back after an attack by a magical creature. The tragedy of this story is that her closest friends have all stayed with her, stayed her besties, for the decade or so that her memory has been gone. And they’ve all retained their magic, their complete memories, and have kept the secret. The thought of that compromise is kind of hellish, that they all loved her enough to stick by her – and that they all feared the witchy powers-that-be enough to keep her utterly in the dark about the truth of their world.

So when Emerson’s powers start coming back, her friends are equal parts scared and thrilled. Thrilled they can finally be their full selves around her. Scared that the powerful witch council will learn that she’s broken the memory block and that they’ve all told her all the things they promised not to tell under threat of their own memory wipes – or worse.

And they are collectively even more frightened because Emerson’s powers must have returned for a reason. A reason that is likely to be even bigger and more threatening than whatever that council will do to them.

What kept making me crazy was that in the midst of all this her friends were just as over-protective and condescending as any of the adults assisting a young first-time magic user are in any of those stories from the 80s and 90s. The situation frustrated the hell out of Emerson, and I was right there with her.

I also think it made her learning curve drag out a bit more than the story needed.

But there’s something else, and it looms even larger now that I’ve finished the book. There are two antagonists in this story. The first, and the largest by nature, is, quite literally, nature. An evil menace is filtering into the confluence of the rivers that sustain the magic of not just St. Cyprian, but the entire magical world. Emerson’s powers have emerged because it is her task to lead the coven that can stop it – even if she has to sacrifice herself in the stopping.

Howsomever, the focus through the entire story is on the other big bad – that leader of the local council who memory-wiped Emerson, exiled her sister Rebekah, drove her parents out of St. Cyprian and has generally been manipulating the entire town through her coven/council for some reason that has not yet been revealed.

And isn’t revealed by the end of the story. So everything ends on a ginormous freaking cliffhanger. The evil menace in the waters seems to have been dealt with – at least for now. But the council has just arrived to deliver what their leader believes is a well-deserved smackdown for saving everyone’s asses.

Literally just arrived as the book doesn’t so much end as come to a temporary and frustrating halt in mid-looming threat.

And we still don’t know what the root cause of that conflict even is. The ending isn’t satisfying. I need to know why the leader seems to have had it in for Emerson and her entire family long before the events of this book. The evil in the water, as much as it needed to be eliminated, wasn’t personal – at least as far as we know. It needed to be resolved but it’s difficult to get invested in. I’m invested in seeing that manipulative witch get exactly what’s coming to her. And I didn’t even get a hint.

Hopefully the answers – or at least some of them – will be revealed in the second book in the series, Big Little Spells. Because I’m salivating for some just desserts to be served.

Review: The Edge of Summer by Viola Shipman

Review: The Edge of Summer by Viola ShipmanThe Edge of Summer by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Graydon House on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Bestselling author Viola Shipman delights with this captivating summertime escape set along the sparkling shores of Lake Michigan, where a woman searches for clues to her secretive mother's past
Devastated by the sudden death of her mother—a quiet, loving and intensely private Southern seamstress called Miss Mabel, who overflowed with pearls of Ozarks wisdom but never spoke of her own family—Sutton Douglas makes the impulsive decision to pack up and head north to the Michigan resort town where she believes she’ll find answers to the lifelong questions she’s had about not only her mother’s past but also her own place in the world.
Recalling Miss Mabel’s sewing notions that were her childhood toys, Sutton buys a collection of buttons at an estate sale from Bonnie Lyons, the imposing matriarch of the lakeside community. Propelled by a handful of trinkets left behind by her mother and glimpses into the history of the magical lakeshore town, Sutton becomes tantalized by the possibility that Bonnie is the grandmother she never knew. But is she? As Sutton cautiously befriends Bonnie and is taken into her confidence, she begins to uncover the secrets about her family that Miss Mabel so carefully hid, and about the role that Sutton herself unwittingly played in it all.

My Review:

When she was a very young woman Mabel Douglas learned a hard lesson that it is dangerous to let people in – because once they are inside your guard they are close enough to administer a fatal blow to your heart if not to your body. So she keeps everyone in the small Ozark town of Nevermore at arm’s length – even her much loved daughter, Sutton.

So it’s fitting, in a terrible and sad way, that “Miss Mabel”, as she is known to her neighbors, dies alone, under quarantine in a nursing home during the early, deadly months of the COVID-19 pandemic, only able to see or be seen by her grief-stricken daughter through a window, the glass all too frequently darkly at best.

Sutton is alone, nearly 40, at best partially employed due to the pandemic, and suddenly aware that the few facts she thought she knew about her mother and her mother’s hidden past were all at best misdirection, and at worst outright lies. That’s one of the few certainties to be gleaned from her mother’s last letter to her, delivered to Sutton by the nursing home in a box of her mother’s effects.

In her mother’s cottage, Sutton has all the things her mother prized most – her vintage Singer sewing machine – known fondly as “Ol Betsy”, her few hidden keepsakes, and her vast collection of vintage buttons. Along with just a few hints to their real origins – a story that Mabel refused to tell her daughter in life and barely left a hint of after her death.

But once Sutton emerges from the depths of her grief, and the world emerges from quarantines and lockdowns, Sutton discovers that she doesn’t want to return to her job as a principal buyer and designer at a Chicago-based women’s clothing store chain. What she wants to do is follow those few tiny clues her mother left her, in the hopes of learning, at last, who her mother really was.

And to perhaps discover who Sutton is meant to be after all.

Escape Rating B: I very much liked the parts of The Edge of Summer, but in the end I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it gelled into a whole. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The story begins during the early days of COVID-19 pandemic. At the point where everything was uncertain, the disease was deadlier than anyone wanted to think about, and the end wasn’t remotely in sight. Which means we meet Sutton at pretty much her lowest ebb. Not just because her mother is dying – although that’s a big part of it – but because she can’t even BE with her mother while she’s passing. Sutton is alone on the outside of the nursing home while her mother is dying alone on the inside of it. Sutton’s life is in chaos and her one anchor in the world is dying – leaving all of Sutton’s questions unanswered and probably unanswerable.

Everyone Sutton knows or meets during this story lost someone to the pandemic. It’s still a very close and real event to people, and the reaction in the story is that a lot of people have drawn closer and become more supportive of each other in the aftermath. I’ll admit that bit felt more hopeful than real, but it was still nice to read. It was, however, heartbreaking but very real that people were impacted and were still being impacted even after the vaccines were available and the quarantines had ended.

Sutton’s sparse clues about her mother’s past lead her to the resort towns on the Lake Michigan shoreline, Saugatuck and Douglas. Douglas was, at least for the purpose of this book, once the pearl button capital of not just Michigan but the entire U.S. That’s where all those tiny clues point, and that’s where Sutton goes to hunt them down.

It’s a past that is elusive in a way that makes it clear that there’s a secret – or two – or ten – buried in the sand dunes near the towns. But as much as the story is about Sutton’s search for her mother’s past it’s also about a search for her own present and future away from her mother’s shadow – even as she learns the reasons why that shadow was so deep and so dark.

So it felt like there were three stories blended into one in The Edge of Summer. One was the bittersweet story of Sutton growing up in a tiny town in the Ozarks with her mother Mabel. It was a childhood filled with love and lies, where Mabel and Sutton were all in all to each other – if only because Mabel refused to let anyone else into their tiny world and taught Sutton to do the same.

The second story was Sutton’s quest to discover the truth about her mother’s past, and the real reason she ended up in Nevermore all alone with a baby seemingly before she turned 20. The past that Sutton searches for is still there to find, a snake lying in the grass ready to bite and poison her just as it did her mother all those years ago.

For this reader, that story had a bit of villain fail. There’s no question her mother’s reasons for leaving were real and valid and necessary, where I thought it fell down a bit was in the villain’s perspective. We know what happened but not really why it happened. Villains are never the villains of their own stories and I felt like I missed someone’s justification for their actions, however twisted it might have been.

The third story, of course, was Sutton’s search for a life no longer bounded by all the self-protective and isolating lessons that her mother taught her. Those are the kind of lessons that are most difficult to unlearn, because they were taught with love and were meant for the best. But Sutton is rightfully tired of being alone and she needs to let some of those lessons go in order to reach out to others. That she finds love as part of her journey is expected and even welcome, but I didn’t get quite enough of the romance to buy into this particular part of her HEA.

All in all, three lovely stories that didn’t quite gel into one whole, at least not for this reader. But a heartwarming time was still had by all, so I’ll be back during the holidays for the author’s next book, A Wish for Winter, which sounds like it might be a bit of a follow-up to this charming story.

Reviewer’s Notes: Two final notes before this review is closed. First, I had a surprising amount of fun jumping down rabbit holes trying to guess which dying Chicago department store Sutton was working for when the story begins. The trip down memory lane took me back to Marshall Field’s, Carson, Pirie, Scott and even Lytton’s in an attempt to narrow it down. I’m probably not even close but I had a grand time looking. Second, I never expected to find another reference to “crown shyness” in a book any time soon after A Prayer for the Crown Shy. I was wrong because it’s in The Edge of Summer as well. It’s turning out to be a surprisingly useful metaphor and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it turn up again!

Review: A Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox

Review: A Lullaby for Witches by Hester FoxA Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Gothic, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on February 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings across the centuries.

Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin.
Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.
One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore.
But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.

My Review:

A Lullaby for Witches is a time slip story whose 21st century anchor is a woman who time slips for a living. Or at least that’s what she set out to do when she graduated college – and probably a master’s program – with a degree in museum and archival studies.

As the story begins, Augusta Podos is working in her field – sorta/kinda – in a dead end job as a tour guide and “interpreter” at the historical Salem, Massachusetts jail. She spends entirely too much of her work time dealing with disgruntled tourists who neglected to read the brochure and are unhappy that the infamous Salem witches were never housed in that jail – BECAUSE THE JAIL WAS BUILT MORE THAN A CENTURY AFTER THE WITCH TRIALS!

She’s also in a dead end relationship with a guy who may be financially stable – but is also emotionally unavailable and manipulative. Someone who has spent the four years of their relationship isolating Augusta from her friends, and who Augusta has spent the same four years making excuses for – over and over and over.

The “dream” job at Harlowe House – an amazing well funded private house museum – knocks Augusta out of her rut in more ways than one. She suddenly has a job she loves, with people who appreciate her, she makes enough money and has enough benefits that she can afford to strike out on her own if she can muster up the fortitude AND she has the chance to stretch her professional wings and use all of her skills and talents.

Augusta is also more than a bit obsessed by the resident ghost of Harlowe House, the mysterious and possibly even apocryphal Margaret Harlowe. Who may have lived a couple of centuries AFTER the witch trials, but who was still, most definitely, a witch.

A witch who has found in Augusta a woman she can use. Augusta believes that Margaret just wants to get her story finally told. Margaret, however, plans to use Augusta to finally get for herself that dish that is best served cold. In Margaret’s case, as cold as the grave.

Escape Rating B: I wanted to start out by repeating the old quote about the more things change, the more they remain the same, but that’s not quite right. And it’s not that history repeats, because that’s not exactly what’s happening here either.

A Lullaby for Witches feels like it’s a story about blame. Or shame, or responsibility, or all of the above. Augusta Podos, the contemporary heroine of this witch’s brew, is a woman who always takes the blame for everything that goes wrong – whether she’s at fault or not. Usually not. She spends her mental energy making excuses for everyone around her and making herself smaller at every turn.

Margaret Harlowe, who anchors the 19th century parts of this hidden history, is Augusta’s opposite. Margaret always was a woman who took up as much space, with expansive gestures, outrageous behavior and mysterious doings, as possible. Also, Margaret never accepts the blame or the responsibility for anything that happens around her, not even – or perhaps especially not – the trouble that she causes and is absolutely responsible for.

To the point where her need for revenge against those she believes have wronged her – no matter how much she may have wronged them first or equally or in return – keeps her spirit from finding rest. Margaret has spent the century and a half of her “afterlife” waiting for a woman of her bloodline to let her live again.

Whether that woman is willing or not.

So, on one side of this story, we watch Augusta finally break out of her self-imposed imprisonment and start to take charge of her own life. And on the other side (pun intended) we see the past from Margaret’s self-aggrandizing and self-justifying perspective – and we observe her start moving Augusta like a pawn on her own personal chessboard.

This ends up being kind of a mixed feelings review. I appreciated Augusta’s journey – but her relationships with her manipulative, isolating ex hit a bit too close to home. I loved her raptures about her new job at Harlowe House, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much fantasy was involved in the creation of a small museum like that being THAT well funded. (One of my best friends is an archivist and I think she’d be laughing a lot at the setup.)

On my third hand, I enjoyed, as I generally do, the portrayal of the research and digging involved with Augusta’s search for history, and I loved the idea of showcasing the forgotten histories of the women of Harlowe.

On my fourth hand – I think I’m co-opting Augusta’s and Margaret’s hands at this point – I didn’t get into Margaret’s story at all. She’s vain, she’s shallow, she’s self-serving to the max. Admittedly, she’s also just barely 20 so her out-of-line-ness isn’t really so far out-of-line. But I found her perspective to be a bit one-note. That meant that I didn’t empathize with her at all, because when it comes to empathy there’s almost no there there.

So the story didn’t feel like it was so much about female power as it was about one woman, Augusta, finding a way to climb out of one rut after another – including one that reached out to her from the shadowy past. But I liked and felt for Augusta, so that worked out alright for this reader.

Review: The Last Daughter of York by Nicola Cornick

Review: The Last Daughter of York by Nicola CornickThe Last Daughter of York by Nicola Cornick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, timeslip fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“An engaging, fast-paced read for fans of Philippa Gregory and of dual-timeline historical fiction." —Library Journal
In the winter of 1483, Francis Lovell is Richard III’s Lord Chamberlain and confidant, but the threat of Henry Tudor’s rebels has the king entrusting to Francis and his wife, Anne, his most crucial mission: protecting the young Richard of York, his brother’s surviving son and a threat to Henry’s claims to the throne.
Two years later, Richard III is dead, and Anne hides the young prince of York while Francis is hunted by agents of the new king, Henry VII. Running out of options to keep her husband and the boy safe, Anne uses the power of an ancient family relic to send them away, knowing that in doing so she will never see Francis again.
In the present day, Serena Warren has been haunted by her past ever since her twin sister, Caitlin, disappeared. But when Caitlin’s bones are discovered interred in a church vault that hasn’t been opened since the eighteenth century, the police are baffled. Piecing together local folklore that speaks of a magical relic with her own hazy memories of the day Caitlin vanished, Serena begins to uncover an impossible secret that her grandfather has kept hidden, one that connects her to Anne, Francis and the young Duke of York.
Inspired by the enduring mystery of the Princes in the Tower, Nicola Cornick cleverly interprets the events into a dazzling novel set between a present-day mystery and a country on the brink of Tudor rule.  

My Review:

Once upon a time (in 1951) there was a mystery titled The Daughter of Time written by Josephine Tey (which was named as the greatest crime novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association). In at least some versions of causality, that book is most likely responsible for this book, either directly or indirectly. It’s certainly directly responsible for my personal interest in Richard III and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, every bit as much as it was for the 21st century protagonist of the story.

And thereby hangs this tale – which actually does reference that earlier book.

The mystery of the “Princes in the Tower” has never been solved. What is known is that, as is related in the 15th century sections of this book, the two young sons of Edward IV were taken to the Tower of London – which at that time was still a royal residence in addition to being a prison – for “safekeeping”. Their father was dead and the older boy should have become Edward V. Instead their uncle Richard of Gloucester became Richard III and eventually one of Shakespeare’s more memorable villains.

It’s Richard III’s body that was discovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012.

The two boys disappeared from the Tower during Richard’s brief and tumultuous reign. Shakespeare’s account portrays Richard as a tyrant and the murderer of his nephews. Tey’s book, with its armchair investigation of the historical mystery, rather convincingly gives a different accounting of the events.

Including a persuasive reminder that history is written by the victors, and that Shakespeare’s play was based on accounts written by those victors and under the rule of a monarch who was the direct inheritor of those victors. He was hardly an authoritative historical source even if he was a memorable one.

The mystery has never been solved, and unlike that of their infamous uncle, the bodies of the two missing princes have not been verifiably found. The bodies of two boys who were purported to have been the princes were discovered in the Tower in the 17th century. But, unlike the more recent discovery of Richard III’s body, no DNA tests have ever been conducted and the identity of the bodies is in dispute.

The reason why all of this long ago history matters in this time slip story is that the slip in time takes the reader back to the last years of Edward IV’s reign and the events that followed. In that past, we follow Anne Fitzhugh and her husband Francis Lovell, a staunch supporter of Richard of Gloucester. While her life is fictionalized, the key events of her part of the story match recorded history – particularly the version of that history that Tey popularized in her novel.

Except for one singular part – the link between Anne and Francis Lovell’s past and Serena Warren and Jack Lovell’s present. A link that may remind readers a tiny bit of Outlander.

Just a tiny bit.

What was utterly fascinating about this story was the way that the historical events lead to the mystery in the present. That Serena’s twin sister Caitlin disappeared without a trace 11 years before, and that her body has just turned up in an archeological dig on the grounds of Lovell Minster.

In a tomb that has not been disturbed since 1708.

The police are baffled. Serena’s parents are not holding up at all well, but that’s neither new nor unexpected. Serena is the stalwart one in the family. But she’s had dissociative amnesia since her twin disappeared. Now she needs to remember what she forgot, in the hopes that those lost memories hold the key to her sister’s murder.

Escape Rating A+: Obviously, I loved this one for the history. Reading The Last Daughter of York made me want to go back and re-read The Daughter of Time yet again. When I read it the first time, I was convinced that Richard III was not the villain that Shakespeare painted him to be, and I remain convinced.

What fascinated me about the historical aspects of this story is the way that the author made the fiction fit the known facts while still managing to add more than a touch of magic and mystery.

While there is a bit of paranormal “woo-woo” in the way that Caitlin’s body ended up in that tomb, the 21st century part of this story, the mystery of her disappearance, was also resolved more than satisfactorily. Serena’s entire family needs closure and the story does an excellent job of making that happen while adding just a bit of something extra into the mix.

I’m far from an unbiased reviewer this time around. If the history hadn’t worked for me, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the rest. Studying this particular era was a big part of my intellectual life for a very long time. Because this did work, and beautifully so, I was all in.

One final note. In the case of The Daughter of Time, the title was a bit of a pun. As Leonardo da Vinci said in his notebooks,, “Truth alone is the daughter of time.” The title of this book is both a play on that title and, I think, a prophecy – or a legacy. The story, in the end, is literally the story of the last daughter of the House of York.

I’ll leave it to you to discover just how that happens, and I wish you joy of this excellent read.

Review: The Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman

Review: The Secret of Snow by Viola ShipmanThe Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, holiday romance, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As comforting and familiar as a favorite sweater, Viola Shipman's first holiday novel is a promise of heartfelt family traditions, humorously real experience, and the enduring power of love and friendship.
Sonny Dunes, a SoCal meteorologist who knows only sunshine and seventy-two-degree days, is being replaced by an AI meteorologist, which the youthful station manager reasons "will never age, gain weight or renegotiate its contract." The only station willing to give the fifty-year-old another shot is one in a famously nontropical place—her northern Michigan hometown.
Unearthing her carefully laid California roots, Sonny returns home and reacclimates to the painfully long, dark winters dominated by a Michigan phenomenon known as lake-effect snow. But beyond the complete physical shock to her system, she's also forced to confront her past: her new boss, a former journalism classmate and mortal frenemy; more keenly, the death of a younger sister who loved the snow; and the mother who caused Sonny to leave.
To distract herself from the unwelcome memories, Sonny decides to throw herself headfirst into all things winter to woo viewers and reclaim her success. From sledding and ice fishing to skiing and winter festivals, the merrymaking culminates with the town’s famed Winter Ice Sculpture Contest. Running the events is a widowed father and chamber of commerce director, whose genuine love of Michigan, winter and Sonny just might thaw her heart and restart her life in a way she never could have predicted.

My Review:

The Secret of Snow is an “all the feels” kind of story. As in, you will feel all the feels while you are reading it. A handy box of tissues might not be a bad idea, especially at the end.

But before you reach the slightly weepy, sadly fluffy ending, there’s a charming story about the holiday season, second chances, and finally recognizing that you’re going to get rain whether you want the rainbow or not, so you might as well reach for that rainbow since you’re already putting up with the rain.

Even if that rainbow is an icebow arching over a foot – or two or three – of snow.

As the story opens, Palm Beach meteorologist Sonny Dunes seems to have it all. Or at least have all that she wants. She’s at the peak of her career, she lives in beautiful Palm Beach California where the sun always shines, she’s content with her life and her work, has no interest in a romantic relationship – and is far, far away from the dark, frozen, snowy cold of Traverse City Michigan where she grew up.

There may not be any snow in Palm Beach, but into each life a little rain must fall. And Sonny Dunes is about to get deluged.

In what seems like a New York minute, Sonny finds herself out of work, having what appears to be a drunken breakdown on camera, as she’s replaced by an A.I. weatherbabe and she seems to have nowhere to go.

Until she’s rescued. Or tortured. Or both. By the frenemy she left behind in college, who is now the manager of a struggling TV station back home in Traverse City.

A frenemy who can’t wait to bring Sonny back to the brutal winters she left behind, just so that she can get a little payback and maybe rescue her job and her station in the process.

So Sonny finds herself back where she once belonged, facing all the bitter winter memories she left behind. And facing her mother who has been waiting, somewhat impatiently, for her remaining daughter to finally move forward from the loss that froze both their hearts.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I loved the author’s previous book, Clover Girls. I was hoping for more of the same second chances, sad fluff, and utter charm. But I loved that book really hard, and this one didn’t quite reach that same height.

Could have something to do with my own escape from the frozen Midwest to Atlanta. I don’t like winter either, don’t want to live in it again, and wasn’t able to get into Sonny’s eventual paeans to the season of ice and snow.

Although I certainly liked the story of her finally unthawing her heart after living with so much trauma and loss for so very long.

Sonny’s whole adulthood has been about running from and burying her emotions to protect herself from being hurt, while not recognizing the collateral damage she’s inflicting on everyone around her. It made for a bit of a hard read, both in that Sonny’s is resistant to everything for a very long time, and possibly a bit of “pot, meet kettle”.

But I enjoyed the story of Sonny’s second chance, and all the more for her mentoring of Icicle. One of the best parts of the story was the way that Sonny finally embracing her own personal renaissance gives him the inspiration and the confidence to reinvent himself as the person he’s almost ready to be and not as the sad sack we first met.

Although a romance does occur in this story, it’s a bit understated, and that worked. The most important relationship in the story is Sonny’s relationship with her mother. They’ve both loved and lost – and the same people at that. Sonny’s younger sister died in a unfortunate accident when she was just starting her teens. Her father died relatively young of cancer. Sonny was never able to move on from those frozen moments in her life, while her mother became a hospice nurse in order to help others through the grief and loss that she herself experienced.

Sonny has kept life and love at a distance, trying to protect herself. Her mother has embraced life, all too aware that none of us get out of this life alive and that joy and purpose can be found in every moment.

Sonny’s forced reinvention of herself, yet again, lets them finally have the relationship that they’ve been hoping for all along. And that’s the part that had me reaching for the tissues.

You will too.

Review: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable

Review: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle GableThe Bookseller's Secret by Michelle Gable
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 400
Published by Graydon House on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Bookseller's Secret is a delight from start to finish, a literary feast any booklover will savor!”—Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code
ARISTOCRAT, AUTHOR, BOOKSELLER, WWII SPY—A THRILLING NOVEL ABOUT REAL-LIFE LITERARY ICON NANCY MITFORD
In 1942, London, Nancy Mitford is worried about more than air raids and German spies. Still recovering from a devastating loss, the once sparkling Bright Young Thing is estranged from her husband, her allowance has been cut, and she’s given up her writing career. On top of this, her five beautiful but infamous sisters continue making headlines with their controversial politics.
Eager for distraction and desperate for income, Nancy jumps at the chance to manage the Heywood Hill bookshop while the owner is away at war. Between the shop’s brisk business and the literary salons she hosts for her eccentric friends, Nancy’s life seems on the upswing. But when a mysterious French officer insists that she has a story to tell, Nancy must decide if picking up the pen again and revealing all is worth the price she might be forced to pay.
Eighty years later, Heywood Hill is abuzz with the hunt for a lost wartime manuscript written by Nancy Mitford. For one woman desperately in need of a change, the search will reveal not only a new side to Nancy, but an even more surprising link between the past and present…
“With a vivid cast of unforgettable characters, Gable expertly and cleverly delivers wit, humor, and intrigue on every page. What a delightful escape.”—Susan Meissner, bestselling author of 

The Nature of Fragile Things


“A triumphant tale that highlights the magic of bookshops and literature to carry people through even the darkest days of war.”—Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of Sold on a Monday

My Review:

The secret that the bookseller is keeping forms a link between the lives of two women who are facing the same crisis in the same location – eighty years apart.

When Nancy Mitford and Katharine Cabot each step through the doors of the Heywood Hill Bookshop in London, they are writers who seem to have lost their writing mojo – even if Nancy Mitford wouldn’t have known what that term meant.

Both have had moderate success, along with a couple of books that sank nearly without a trace. In 1942, Mitford was still smarting from the failure of timing that was the publication of Pigeon Pie, a book lampooning the “Phoney War” of 1939. Unfortunately for Mitford, the book was released just as the Sitzkrieg became the Blitzkrieg, making the book not just passe but in very poor taste.

(The sinking of Pigeon Pie got a brief mention in another recent WW2 book set in a bookstore, The Last Bookshop in London, as the unsold copies got summarily returned to the publisher. If you liked that book you’ll probably like this one and vice versa.)

As each of the women crosses the threshold of Heywood Hill they are facing variations of the same crossroad. In the midst of the war, Mitford feels as if she’s lost both the time and the inclination to write. Katie, in the wake of multiple personal losses, isn’t sure she has it in her to write again, and is even less certain that it’s worth trying.

We follow their stories back and forth, from Nancy during the war years working in the bookshop to keep body and soul together in a material sense while worried that she’ll ever find time to write anything ever again. She’s somewhat desperately in search of both a few spare minutes a day to write and a muse to inspire her to write.

It’s that search for inspiration, or rather what she seems to have found to fill it, that links Mitford to Katie. Peter Bailey has scraps of evidence that Mitford was writing an autobiography about her war work with refugees, a story that would feature his own grandmother. He’s searching for the manuscript of that book – if it even exists.

Katie, who wrote her thesis on Mitford, is willing to help him search for that manuscript so she can continue procrastinating over her own empty pages. That Bailey is intelligent, interesting and incredibly handsome doesn’t impact Katie’s desire to help him in the slightest.

Right.

In the past, we follow Mitford during the war years – a period that she did not write about herself – as she uses that attempted autobiography to get out of her slump – even if it never sees the light of day.

In the present Katie uses her search for the manuscript and her flirtation with Bailey to inspire her to pick up her own pen – or in her case open her word processor.

While the current manager of Heywood Hill looks on and hopes that he is doing the right thing. It’s left up to the reader to be the judge of that!

Escape Rating A-: I was a lot more charmed by this than I expected to be, and also a lot less lost than I thought I might be. I have not read Mitford at all, so when I came into this the only background I had were some of the better-known historical bits, that her family was involved in leftist politics before, during and after the war. I did think this might be a bit more like The Last Bookshop in London than it turned out to be, so that reference to Pigeon Pie did link the two a bit.

My lack of background about Mitford wasn’t really an issue as this story is very much a “what if?” kind of story. It’s not biographical because little is known about Mitford’s activities during the war, particularly her work at Heyward Hill. So all of the parts from Mitford’s perspective are meant to look and sound and act like her, but may or may not bear huge resemblance to what she actually did during those years.

Nancy Mitford

Whatever she truly did during the war, it’s clear that Nancy Mitford was a complex individual who mined the triumphs and tragedies of her life – and there were plenty of both – in her fiction. Her best known works, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, both published after the end of the war, managed to tell and retell different variations of her life in a way that let her explore her past and possibly expiate it without making relationships with her family any worse or more strained than they already were.

But when this story takes place, those bestselling books weren’t even a gleam in the author’s eye. Her success was still in the future and her present was a bit bleak in more ways than one.

And that’s where Katie’s story comes in. She has one bestselling book under her authorial belt and zero inspiration for a second. She turns to Mitford for both comfort and inspiration, comfort in the re-reading of her favorites and inspiration because Mitford went through a 15-year dry spell and Katie’s isn’t nearly that long yet. What she hopes for but doesn’t expect to find is a way forward for herself in both her life and her art.

Both parts of this story weave the personal with the professional, the difficulty of getting out of a slump, the relentless pressures of time and just plain life in general, and the way that real life intrudes and inspires at the same time. Katie both feels for Mitford and gains perspective from her at the same time.

I think that’s the part that charmed me. Coming into this cold, so to speak, I didn’t have any preconceptions about Mitford so was able to see the ways in which the two women were alike in spite of the difference of nearly a century. Both independent, both sometimes bowed under the weight of other people’s expectations, both having an approach/avoidance conflict about their work and everything else in their lives. They seemed like sisters under the skin and I wanted a happy ending for them both, but on their terms. Mitford seems to have more or less gotten hers, so Katie definitely has a chance!

Because that bookseller kept his secret after all.

Review: Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan

Review: Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason DoanLady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on June 29, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“A delicious daydream of a book.” —Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author of 28 Summers
“With lyrical writing and a page-turning plot, this sun-dappled book has it all: heart, smarts, and an irresistible musical beat. A tone-perfect evocation of the free-spirited late 1970s and a riveting coming-of-age story.” —Karen Dukess, author of The Last Book Party
“In LADY SUNSHINE, Amy Mason Doan has crafted an engrossing tale of secrets, memory, music, and the people and places you can never outrun. This novel will transport you to the ‘70s and summertime magic and a long overdue reckoning. A fantastic summer read.”—Laura Dave, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me
ONE ICONIC FAMILY. ONE SUMMER OF SECRETS. THE DAZZLING SPIRIT OF 1970S CALIFORNIA.

For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods... until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.
Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.
Lady Sunshine is shot through with free love, hope, and all the magic of the ’70s, but under the sun and music lie dark secrets.It’s a thrilling ride, a beautiful evocation of an era, and a story that will keep readers entranced from the first page to the last.”—Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Child Finder
“This book is gorgeous. A gold-drenched nostalgic dream with a fierce female friendship at its heart.”—Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of I'll Be Your Blue Sky
“Haunting and vivid, with layered, complex characters and an evocative setting that sparkles with detail, LADY SUNSHINE will stay with me for a long time.”—Julie Clark, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Flight

My Review:

This story feels like its drenched in summer, not just any summer, but those summers that exist only in memory, the summers of childhood where the season seems endless when school lets out, but speeds up inexorably as the number of carefree sunny days dwindles down at the end as school looms on the horizon.

Even though Jackie and her cousin Willa are not children in this particular summer. But at 17 when the story begins, they are not exactly adults either. This is a story of that summer where it all changes.

It’s also a story about another summer, the summer twenty years later when Jackie returns to the place she left behind, all alone with her memories of friendship and love and loss. Only to find that she isn’t quite as alone as she believed, and that those memories, as painful as they are, are not quite done with her yet – no matter how much she wants to be done with them.

It’s the summer of 1979, and Jackie has come to spend her last summer of high school at the Sandcastle, the home of her uncle Graham Kingston, a famous folk singer of the 1960s whose best performing and recording years seem to be behind him – along with the demons that lifestyle brought with them.

Jackie, escaping from the straitjacket of conformism that is life with her father and stepmother, finds herself, and finds herself a home, in the free-spirited and freewheeling circle of artists, musicians and friends that hangs around her uncle at the Sandcastle. And she finds the sister of her heart in her cousin Willa.

Twenty years later it’s all gone. Her larger-than-life uncle is long dead, as is her cousin Willa. No one is left except Jackie to inherit the house, the grounds, the studio and all the memories they left behind. She’s back for one final summer, the summer of 1999, to pack it all up and sell it all away. Forever.

But first she has to go back to the time, and the place, where it all went so very wrong. There are pieces still left to break her heart one last time – if only she’ll reach out and grab them.

Escape Rating B: This is such a summer book. The heat of both of those long-ago summers practically steams off the page, and the sound of the surf rolls in your ears as you read Jackie’s old diary over her shoulder.

But the story also moves at the pace of those long ago summers, in that it builds slowly at the beginning, like the early days of summer when it feels like the season will last forever. And occasionally it feels like that part of the book is taking its own sweet summer time to get itself off the ground.

Once it catches its own wave, once the end of both summers is on the horizon, the pace picks up as the girls of 1979 and the woman of 1999 try to wring the last drop of bittersweetness out of each and every day that is left.

In 1979, Jackie doesn’t want to leave. In 1999, it feels like she can’t until she’s done. Or until it’s done with her.

Although speaking of 1979, on the one hand I have to say that it read like I remember. I was just a few years older than Jackie and Willa at the time. On the other hand, I kept wondering why the author chose that particular time period, and I think it must have been the music.

As I said, Jackie’s 1979 felt like the one I remember. Which is part of what carried me through the early parts of the story.

Because it’s the story of that golden summer that sweeps the reader up and carries them away, just as Jackie was carried away by the larger than life figure of her uncle and the place he created around himself on the northern California coast.

Because of the dual timelines, we start the story know that something terrible happened at the end of that summer. The questions all revolve around what that something was that made the idyll crash and burn.

Waiting to discover what that “something” was hangs over the entire book, because even in the secondary timeline of 1999 Jackie refuses to get near that memory. As the story spun out, it became clear that it was a loss of innocence, but not sexual. This is not Summer of ‘42 and the girls neither lose their virginity nor get sexually abused by a trusted mentor or family member. It’s much more complicated, and therefore more interesting, than that.

It turns out that the loss is twofold, they discover that their hero has feet of clay up to the knees, and they discover that their attempts to “fix” things can have tragic consequences. But it takes a fair bit of story to get there.

While the foundation of everything is in 1979, the 1999 portions of the story were more dynamic. More things happen and they happen faster, even as Jackie continues to avoid the real issues that brought her back.

But when those issues finally come full circle, it provides a lovely ending for the whole emotional package. There were points in the middle where I wondered whether this story was ever going to get itself to its sticking point, but when it finally did it made for just the right coda to the entire journey.

Review: The Clover Girls by Viola Shipman

Review: The Clover Girls by Viola ShipmanThe Clover Girls by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Like a true friendship, The Clover Girls is a novel you will forever savor and treasure." —Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author
Elizabeth, Veronica, Rachel and Emily met at Camp Birchwood as girls in 1985, where over four summers they were the Clover Girls—inseparable for those magical few weeks of freedom—until the last summer that pulled them apart. Now approaching middle age, the women are facing challenges they never imagined as teens, struggles with their marriages, their children, their careers, and wondering who it is they see when they look in the mirror.
Then Liz, V and Rachel each receive a letter from Emily with devastating news. She implores the girls who were once her best friends to reunite at Camp Birchwood one last time, to spend a week together revisiting the dreams they’d put aside and repair the relationships they’d allowed to sour. But the women are not the same idealistic, confident girls who once ruled Camp Birchwood, and perhaps some friendships aren’t meant to last forever…
Bestselling author Viola Shipman is at her absolute best with The Clover Girls. Readers of all ages and backgrounds will love its powerful, redemptive nature and the empowering message at its heart.

My Review:

Actual adulting is very different from what we imagined life would be like when we were kids. Even more different than real life was from summer camp life, back in that long ago day.

Or at least that’s true for the Clover Girls of Camp Birchwood as they look back on those four golden summers more than 30 years ago, back when they were certain they were going to be best friends 4-EVER, just like their names. Back when they were 15 instead of 50. Before they broke their friendship and went their separate ways.

Back when they were all full of life and hope and dreams. Back when they were all alive.

Because none of those things are true any longer. Veronica, once a supermodel, has faded into the background of her marriage and her life. Liz is caught in the mid-life sandwich, divorced, taking care of her dying mother and coming to the harsh realization that her grown up children are selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed, and that Liz is going to be all alone in the world when her mother dies. Rachel is possibly the most hated woman in America, a former actress and conservative political handler and TV personality who lives out of a suitcase and goes on TV to spin the deeds of vile politicians into soundbites that can be all-too-easily swallowed by people looking for demons to embrace.

Emma is dead. But before she died she returned alone, to Camp Birchwood, one last time, to make the abandoned campground ready for one final visit from the Clover Girls. Emma hopes that a return to the place where they were free to be their best and most authentic selves will give the friends she loved so much one last chance to fix what they broke between them.

And what they broke inside themselves.

Escape Rating A-: The Clover Girls reads like “sad fluff”, but it’s the fluffiest, tastiest marshmallow fluff that ever fluffed, lightly toasted and nestled lovingly between two graham crackers and just the right amount of chocolate. In other words, it may be sad fluff, but it’s the quintessential s’more of sad fluff, just as messy, gooey and tasty as the s’mores we ate at summer camp way back when.

And if my read of it is any indication, it’s clear that you can take the girl out of summer camp, time can put the entire experience (far) into the rearview mirror, but you can’t really take the girl out of the woman or the s’mores out of the girl.

There is a LOT of sad in this story – and not just because Emma is dead from the beginning. But it’s a weep in the middle rather than a cry at the end kind of story. All of the remaining Clover Girls have a lot to get over, a lot to forgive each other for and an equal amount of crap to forgive themselves for, but the story ends with a smile and twinkle in its eye.

Along the way, there’s a lot about the boxes that women get shoehorned into from a very young age, and how there’s even less time than there was when the Clover Girls were girls for girls to just have a chance to be and to find out who they can be when there’s less pressure to fit into the molds that society and their parents have already laid out for them.

One thing I was grateful for is that there aren’t a ton of flashbacks. There’s just enough for the reader to understand what went right and wrong back then that led them to the lives they have now, without spending half the book reliving the past.

It’s the present that’s important. Acknowledging the past is necessary in order for them each to move forward, but rehashing the past in all of its gory detail won’t help them deal with the issues they have in the present. And I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have liked the story half as much if that was the way it had been written.

Something else that I liked about this story was the way that the author dealt with the recent past and the political strife that has occurred in the U.S. over the past few years. Not just the conflict between political parties but divisions between family members. The remaining Clover Girls seemed to run the political gamut from liberal to conservative, but with the exception of Rachel it was conservative in the way that anyone who lived through the Reagan Era would think of conservative rather than the pure factionalism that’s occurring now. I found that acknowledgement to be both real and tastefully done, although I’m sure that others’ reading mileage will vary.

There turned out to be much more to this story than I expected on any number of fronts, all of them thought provoking and in the end rather joyful. And that sad fluff was surprisingly tasty as well as nostalgic. All in all, an absolutely lovely read.

Review: Talk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley

Review: Talk Bookish to Me by Kate BromleyTalk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely—and inconvenient—sources.
Kara Sullivan’s life is full of love—albeit fictional. As a bestselling romance novelist and influential bookstagrammer, she’s fine with getting her happily-ever-after fix between the covers of a book.
But right now? Not only is Kara’s best friend getting married next week—which means big wedding stress—but the deadline for her next novel is looming, and she hasn’t written a single word. The last thing she needs is for her infuriating first love, Ryan Thompson, to suddenly appear in the wedding party. But Ryan’s unexpected arrival sparks a creative awakening in Kara that inspires the steamy historical romance she desperately needs to deliver.
With her wedding duties intensifying, her deadline getting closer by the second and her bills not paying themselves, Kara knows there’s only one way for her to finish her book and to give her characters the ever-after they deserve. But can she embrace the unlikely, ruggedly handsome muse—who pushes every one of her buttons—to save the wedding, her career and, just maybe, write her own happy ending?
"A fun and sexy romp, with chemistry that gave me all the feels!" —Jennifer Probst, New York Times bestselling author of Our Italian Summer
"Add this book to your TBR list immediately!" —Sarah Smith, author of Faker

My Review:

Romance book tropes are not nearly as much fun to experience in real life as they are between the pages of the best-selling romance novels that Kara Sullivan writes. Or so she discovers when it seems like all of her favorite tropes are happening to her, all at once, when her muse is on strike and she runs into her ex in a meet-not-so-cute at her best friend’s pre-wedding party.

Some of Kara’s favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, forced proximity and forbidden love, and she gets all of those and more in this second-chance at love story. Which is, of course, yet another romantic trope.

Now that I think about it, Kara REALLY should have paid more attention to her list of favorite tropes from the very beginning. It would have saved her a lot of heartbreak – but it might have also prevented her chance at her very own HEA.

Not to mention keeping her from missing the deadline to submit her next book!

Escape Rating B: I’m putting the rating in really, really early because I really need to talk about this book and the myriad mixed feelings it gave me. Because there were lots. Bunches. Oodles.

A LOT.

For me, this didn’t read so much as a second chance romance as it did a kind of “unfinished business” romance. Kara and Ryan fell in love in college, and it was one of those stars blazing in the night overwhelming kinds of love that happens when we’re young and not yet jaded and haven’t felt anything quite like it before. It’s that first romance on the cusp of adulthood, when you can imagine spending the rest of your life with this person and you’re old enough for that to be real but you may not be quite mature enough to get through the hard parts.

Kara and Ryan didn’t so much break up as explode while both of them were dealing with terrible situations in their birth families. But it feels like when they broke up they weren’t really done with each other, so when they meet again ten years later, everything that wasn’t resolved back then comes back up now. Unfortunately along with bringing back all the feelings, they regurgitate the bad parts as well.

So Kara’s angst at seeing Ryan again is laid on top of her angst about her next book along with her long held grief and guilt at the sudden death of her father and the arguments they were having at the time he died.

(This was the part that gutted me. My dad also died suddenly, although thankfully not in the midst of us arguing. It’s been almost 30 years now and sometimes the grief still cuts like a knife. I was just so there for Kara that I almost couldn’t go on with the book.)

Also, I don’t know why, but I went into this one thinking that it would be a rom-com. It has all of the witty banter of a rom-com, but as funny as Kara’s and Ryan’s verbal interactions sometimes are, the story at its heart isn’t funny.

Now that I think about it, this might be verging on what some of my bookish friends are calling “sad fluff”. What happened between Kara and Ryan back in college ended sadly, and both of them have been sad about it for pretty much the entire intervening time – at least all of that time when they weren’t still seething with anger.

And what happens in the present, well it ends well. It ends with the chance of happiness. But it doesn’t end with a happy ever after because their relationship still isn’t ready for that. In some ways I’m glad to see a story that is set up as a romance not quite end romantically just because it’s a romance. An HEA at the point Kara and Ryan are at the end wouldn’t feel earned.

But it’s also weird to read a romance that doesn’t end in an HEA or HFN.

Talk Bookish to Me wasn’t quite as bookish as I was expecting, although her portrayal of just how much damn work it is to be a bookstagrammer made me glad that every time I investigated the possibility I backed off. Bookstagram is neat but I’m so much more about the words than about the pictures that I can’t even. So that bit made me perversely happy.

As I said earlier, this one gave me a ton of mixed feelings. Both while reading and after. Your reading mileage may vary but please be advised that emotions in bookish mirror may be closer than they appear.

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren Edmondson

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren EdmondsonLadies of the House: A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility by Lauren Edmondson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: relationship fiction, retellings, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Graydon House on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

AN IRRESISTIBLE FAMILY DRAMA THAT PUTS A MODERN SPIN ON JANE AUSTEN’S CLASSIC SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
“I was absolutely charmed by Ladies of the House. A wonderful debut.” —Allison Winn Scotch, bestselling author of Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing
No surprise is a good surprise. At least according to thirty-four-year-old Daisy Richardson. So when it’s revealed in dramatic fashion that her esteemed father had been involved in a public scandal before his untimely death, Daisy’s life becomes complicated—and fast.
For one, the Richardsons must now sell the family home in Georgetown they can no longer afford, and Daisy’s mother is holding on with an iron grip. Her younger sister, Wallis, is ready to move on to bigger and better things but falls fast and hard for the most inconvenient person possible. And then there’s Atlas, Daisy’s best friend. She’s always wished they could be more, but now he’s writing an exposé on the one subject she’s been desperate to avoid: her father.
Daisy’s plan is to maintain a low profile as she works to keep her family intact amid social exile, public shaming, and quickly dwindling savings. But the spotlight always seems to find the Richardsons, and when another twist in the scandal comes to light, Daisy must confront the consequences of her continued silence and summon the courage to stand up and accept the power of her own voice.
“A stellar novel that celebrates sisterhood and the way women can step out of flawed men’s shadows. I delighted in every page.”—Amy Meyerson, bestselling author of The Bookshop of Yesterdays and The Imperfects
“Warm, witty, and whip-smart. Edmondson’s talent shines in her expertly crafted story of two sisters breaking free of their father’s legacy. A sensational debut.”—Amy Mason Doan, author of The Summer List and Lady Sunshine

My Review:

The blurb for this book says that “no surprise is a good surprise.” While that’s true in the context of this story, I have to say that this book turned out to be a surprise, and for the most part it was a damn good one.

The subtitle of the book feels just a bit misleading, but also in a good way. With that proclamation of “A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility” I was expecting something a bit more Jane Austen-like, and that isn’t exactly what I got. So if you’re looking for a version of Sense and Sensibility dropped whole and entire into the 21st century, that’s not exactly what you’re going to get.

Instead, think about what would happen if a family like the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, or at least the female members of that family, existed in the present day. Or at least a present day before the pandemic restrictions.

Because the plot of the original story was driven by the circumstance of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters being forced into reduced circumstances by the death of their patriarch in an era when women’s only road to financial security was to be attached to a man – and they’d just lost theirs.

The story in Ladies of the House both has the same beginning as the original but differs widely and wildly in its execution because the world that the Richardson women inhabit is vastly different.

They may be reduced in circumstances, rather dramatically so, but they have choices that were completely unavailable to the Dashwoods.

The story of these Ladies of the House, rather than slavishly following its inspiration, follows the course of those choices. And in the process, creates a different, new and much more fascinating story than I, at least, originally expected.

Escape Rating A-: I’ll admit that I didn’t figure out what was going on until I read the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. At first, I saw very little of Sense and Sensibility and a whole lot of a contemporary piece of women’s fiction with a political twist for spice.

Although younger sister Wallis’ relationship with the fast-moving, fast-talking son of a political enemy certainly brought Marianne’s fast but equally  ill-fated romance with the equally smarmy Willoughby to mind.

But the heart and soul of this story is Daisy’s journey. If Wallis is “sensibility” as Marianne was, Daisy is playing the part of “sense” as Elinor did in the original. Daisy was her father’s favorite, and she’s the one who has followed in his footsteps into politics, as the chief-of-staff to a liberal Senator.

So when the late Senator Richardson was revealed to have had feet of clay up to the knees, it’s Daisy who suffers the most. Her job requires that she not become the story, her job is to make the Senator she works for be the story at every turn.

Her instinct is to deny, dismiss and minimize the scandal her father left behind him, even as she is forced to reckon with the part that she played in his downfall and her own. Her best friend is writing the investigative report of the whole sad affair, and the more he digs, the more Daisy buries herself.

It’s only when she finally and irrevocably steps away from her father’s shadow that she is able to find her own light.

But that’s part of what makes this modern retelling so different from its original. Daisy, Wallis and their mother Cricket all have choices that the Dashwood women did not. This is the story of what they do with those choices, now that they have them.

And how the making of those choices shapes them all – and very much for the better.